Whether it’s attending lectures, making memorable first impressions at that first office job, or filling the room at a concert, many social rituals that had been rites of passage for young people have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s left people like Thuan Phung, a junior at Parsons School of Design who lives in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, feeling “weird” about real-life interactions. After two years of virtual teaching, he is back in the classroom.
“On Zoom, you can mute the sound,” said Mr. Phung, 25. “It took me a while to learn how to talk to people.”
Now, a recent study of people’s personalities suggests that the discomfort he feels is not uncommon for people of his generation, who were forced into isolation by pandemic restrictions in their twenties, already a period of social anxiety for many of them.
Covid has not only reshaped the way we work and connect with others, but also reshaped the way we are, according to the study, which found some of the most pronounced effects in young adults.
According to the study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, our main personality traits have faded, so we have become less outgoing and creative, less agreeable and less conscientious.
These declines represented “about a decade of normative personality change,” according to the study. People under the age of 30 exhibited ‘disturbed maturity’. This change is the opposite of how a young adult’s personality normally develops over time, the study authors wrote.
“If these changes persist, this evidence suggests that stressful population-wide events can slightly alter the trajectory of personality, particularly in young adults,” the study says.
The personality study authors relied on data from the Understanding America Study, an ongoing internet panel at the University of Southern California that began collecting survey responses in 2014, in s based on publicly available data from approximately 7,000 participants who responded to an administered personality assessment. before and during the pandemic.
Angelina Sutin, lead author of the paper and a professor at Florida State University, said the study results showed that, on average, personality was altered during the pandemic, although she pointed out that the results captured “a snapshot in time” and could be temporary.
“Personality tends to be quite resistant to change. It could take something like a global pandemic,” Dr. Sutin said. these changes.”
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Dr. Sutin and his co-authors also don’t know if these personality changes will persist.
The researchers analyzed five personality dimensions: neuroticism, tolerance to stress and negative emotions; openness, defined as unconventionality and creativity; extroversion, or how extraverted a person is; friendliness, or being “confident and direct”; and awareness, how responsible and organized a person is.
Gerald Clore, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Virginia, said the authors exercised “appropriate caution” in their conclusions and stressed the need for further study to re-examine the findings.
The pandemic itself was a “hell of an experience”, Dr Clore said, theorizing it may have been the restructuring of routines instead of general stress that reshaped people’s personalities.
Perhaps echoing the changes, interest in psychotherapy has soared throughout the pandemic, several therapists said. Virtual therapy has also exploded.
At Talkspace, a platform that offers online therapy, the number of individual active users grew 60% from March 2020 to a year later, said company spokesman John Kim.
The number of teens seeking therapy at BetterHelp has nearly quadrupled since 2019, a spokeswoman for the online therapy company said.
Therapists practicing in the United States say they have watched their clients struggle to navigate the confines of pandemic life and deal with the vicissitudes of social norms.
Nedra Glover Tawwab, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based therapist with a private practice and an Instagram following of more than a million, said she’s noticed growing discomfort as people slowly slip back into routines. past, like working in an office.
“We’ve gotten so used to isolating ourselves that we now think we like it,” Ms Glover Tawwab said. “But is that really who you are? Or did you have to accept during this period? »
Some people coped with the heightened stress, exhaustion, and frustration of the period by finding a new outlet: screaming outside with others. The trend has been attracting participants for more than a year.
Boston therapist Sarah Harmon hosted her first Primal Scream event in March 2022 to let go of the feelings she said she was exploding with.
“The pandemic has given us nothing; he didn’t allow any of these deflates, any of these recharges,” Ms. Harmon said.
She said the proliferation and popularity of these screaming events underscores how people have unmet needs and few ways to process or release pent up feelings like rage.
Since April, Heather Dinn, of Zionsville, Ind., has been hosting monthly group shoutouts at a local football field. She said the scream was an opportunity for people who had bottled up their frustrations to get rid of an “overflowing” emotional charge before they burst.
“When we let everything get stuck in there, it just stays there and goes nowhere,” health and lifestyle coach Ms Dinn said.
Delta Hunter, a therapist in New York who leads a social anxiety therapy group, said the pandemic is “aggravating” existing anxiety.
“People want to connect and deal together and we haven’t been able to do any of that,” Ms Hunter said. “People felt really lost because of it.”
Young adults, and especially adolescents, faced greater restrictions on activities and experiences typical of adolescence and youth, Ms Sutin’s study concluded. It found that people under 30 showed the greatest declines in consciousness and agreeableness.
“When everyone of yours enters the virtual space, you lose that training ground to be able to be more conscientious,” Ms Harmon said, adding that she sees a lot of social anxiety among younger generations, perhaps because that they had not accumulated so much awareness. many in-person experiences and coping skills.
Several months ago, Anviksha Kalscheur’s Chicago practice set up a teen support program to help young people deal with feelings of disconnection and isolation.
Teenagers expressed an overall negative view of the future and heightened social anxiety, she said. Therapists noticed a “little dark cloud” in their clients’ perspectives when it came to perceiving the uncertainty of the years to come, Ms Kalscheur said.
Connection, attachment and interaction with others are key to personality development, Ms. Kalscheur said, adding that identity and personality are still forming in young adolescents.
“You’re at that stage of development, where they don’t get these cues, these attachments, these learnings, like all these different plays that happen that you don’t even think about often,” she said. “So of course your environment has such a huge impact and in that particular time frame.”
How long the changes of the pandemic period last remains an open question, the study authors said.
Therapists like Ms Glover Tawwab said the period of transition to life in person after the worst of the crisis could provide an opportunity to slowly reintegrate and reconnect more intentionally with people and experiences.
“It’s a wonderful time to really observe the things you miss and the things you like to get away from,” she said. “So now we have the time to create what we really want.”
Grace Wilentz, a 37-year-old poet who lives in Dublin, said the silver lining of the pandemic for her had gained greater self-awareness which led her to rekindle broken friendships. She took the time to reconnect with old friends over working lunches.
“I expected those relationships to be a bit difficult to rekindle,” she said. “In a way, they’re kind of richer and more solid.”
Positive transformation is possible in times of uncertainty, Ms. Kalscheur said.
“Sometimes, for example, it takes a real break in our social, cultural, and even our mental health norms to transform into something better,” she said. “It’s almost like breaking down to rebuild.”
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